Climate change science for nonscientists

By Jeff Austin
March 28th, 2014

Last week I attended the Climate Leadership Conference convened by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and three climate change centric Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Among the many benefits of this conference is it has the firepower to attract some of the biggest thinkers on the science of climate change. This year, I think they went above and beyond with the closing plenary featuring Drs. Michael Mann, Distinguished Professor and Director, Earth System Science Center (ESSC), Penn State University, and Richard Somerville, Distinguished Professor Emeritus and Research Professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego (bios here:

These two scientists are clear leaders in their fields of study, but may perhaps be better known for their ability to translate complex data and ideas to the rest of us so that we can better understand and thus act on what we learn. While the discussion covered many ideas, here are a couple of their comments that stood out for me:

The time scale of climate change we are experiencing today is fundamentally different than any other time in the entire natural history of the earth. The change in the level of carbon that has taken place over a hundred million years in a natural cycle is now taking place over the course of a hundred years or so, as humans extract, burn and or emit millions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere. This rapid change cannot be accommodated in an evolutionary or modern economic time frame without significant disruption and or discontinuity.

The popular culture debate over where is the exactitude of a tipping point is in the parts per million (PPM) of carbon in the atmosphere, or degree rise in surface temperature, misses the point. Think of these numbers as the “speed limit over which the faster you go the higher the likelihood of something bad happening.” Would we not slow down if we recognized that the odds of safe passage were against us?

With each year we don’t act, we will have to double effort (and cost) each year when we decide to act. Economists call this the “procrastination cost model.”

Due to the relentless pace of carbon accumulation in the atmosphere, human kind (societies, governments, economies, businesses, etc.) will have to learn to balance mitigation, adaptation and suffering for centuries into the future. It will be the “new normal.”

Would you agree? Please comment and let me know what you think.

Tags:   carbon   CLC   climate   climate change   conference   EPA   Michael Mann   NGO   PPM   Richard Somerville   San Diego   
Jeff Austin

Jeff Austin

As head of Environmental Affairs Operational Sustainability Strategy, Jeff is responsible for environmental goal setting and performance in the areas of supply chain, facilities, and information technology. He manages the company’s progress toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions and efforts to increase energy and water efficiency, and works to increase waste stream diversion rates and the development of more sustainable supply chain practices and policies. Austin serves on the External Advisory Board of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte’s IDEAS (Infrastructure, Design, Environment and Sustainability) Center.

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